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Russia's unexpected opposition

Russia's unexpected opposition
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Engineer Vyacheslav, analyst Anna and programmer Aleksandre have changed: they no longer just follow the news, they help make it. Russia’s middle class are ‘putting their foot down’.

Since early December, they have been part of Russia’s newborn opposition, the protest movement against the grip on power that Vladimir Putin has had for 12 years.

Financial analyst Anna (wary of giving her full name) said: “I have taken a very active part in different protest events since December 5, when everyone converged in central Moscow. I plan to participate in others, too. I am fed up with what is happening in the country. Politicians have taken power illicitly, do not intend to give it up and will listen to no one. We are here to show how many of us there are, and that we won’t give up – that we will fight.”

Outraged by the many reports about parliamentary election fraud on December 4, Russian social networking online erupted into activity.

Bolotnaya square in Moscow became a main focal point of the new protest movement, and the Chistiye Prudi neighbourhood. No stones or petrol bombs here… These middle class Russians are armed with white balloons. They feel they have a lot to lose. They want fair elections, not revolution.

Boris Akunin, a writer speaking at a Bolotnaya rally, said: “I haven’t seen Moscow like this for 20 years. Frankly, I thought I’d never see it again.”

Akunin is famous in Russia for his detective novels – fiction in real historical settings. When the protests erupted, he threw down his pen and raced to Moscow from the village in the French countryside where he writes. He felt that to miss history-in-the-making would be mad. He took a break from a television forum to talk to euronews. He described a civil society coming-of-age experience.

Akunin said: “At the beginning it was middle class people who were outraged by Putin and Medvedev’s tag-team power shuffle, announced in September. They were even more outraged by the parliamentary elections in December. All of us felt: enough is enough. They cannot treat us like this in our own country. After that, the movement started to grow. It has spread all over Russia, and is obviously becoming stronger and stronger.”

A group calling itself “Resistance: street art” organises flash-crowd photo sessions, giving out leaflets calling on people to come to protest events. The movement does not have a leader.

Levshits, an advertising manager in the group, said: “Our members include flight attendants, students, system administrators, project managers… Nine out of ten of them did not know each other before December. Most of us were not engaged in any political or other organised social activity. We have different mottos. One of them is: “Create an honest Russia with your own hands.”

Aleksei Shichkov runs a chain of laundrettes. He has been giving out tea at protests. He just joined the crowd at Chistiye Prudi, passively. When the police threw him in jail for two days, he came out active.

Shichkov said: “The regime made me politically active. I wasn’t at all politically active before. I don’t belong to any party. What I do today is “civil activism”. Any resolution calling for free elections – I’ll sign. The only thing I understand is that the government doesn’t listen to us. I don’t know what the next step will be.”

The next step for television presenter and actress Tatiana Lazareva is to help monitor the presidential election process. She never expected she would become part of the unexpected opposition. Along with Boris Akunin, Tatiana is a co-founder of the a-political organisation “Voters League”. One of its goals is to help prepare responsible voters for the elections of March 4.

Lazareva said: “Just recently I realised that we can and we should check up on people in power. They work for us. I don’t know what will happen on March 5, but I understand that our work is just starting. First of all, we should work with each other in order to understand the real role of citizens in this society. Those words seem terribly pretentious, but I think nobody has used them for 12 years. It is time to make them part of our active vocabulary.”